Coming Out as a Porn Addict

The Internet caused my addiction, but it also helped me find a cure.
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Jinx!/Flickr

About a year ago, I was regularly seeing a therapist. During one session, I mentioned the niche porn I had watched and how I was unsure whether or not I wanted to embrace some of the "kinkier" fantasies, like rape and incest, through role-play in my real sex life. It was the only time I could remember her telling me that certain fantasies--not acted out in real life, just imagined--could be "wrong" or considered a "sickness." In retrospect, understanding my condition as an illness might actually have been empowering if explained differently, but at the time, it shut me right up. I never brought it up to her again.

I'm not alone in feeling silenced. Every day it prevents a lot of people from recovering. From porn.

Earlier this month in The Atlantic I described how I came to identify with the porn addiction movement, if a bit unsure of where exactly I fall under that umbrella. The label made me feel comfortable reaching out to affinity groups and ultimately seeking the treatment I now felt I needed.

More immediately, it begot hours of trying to figure out: How many other people watch porn like I did? While there's no survey for porn addiction, there is a life path emerging for some percentage of the population shaded by Internet porn.

The average age a U.S. child is first exposed to porn is 11 according to Family Safe Media, though others claim it's closer to 14. According to Norton Family, of 3.5 million web searches in 2009 by kids, the sixth most commonly searched term was "porn." For children younger than eight, it was the fourth most commonly searched term.

Clearly, many like me started watching porn when they were barely pubescent, and researchers assert that there's a correlation between early porn use and sexual compulsion problems down the road.

According to a 2009 survey of 30,000 college students, over 10 percent of U.S male students are estimated to be heavy porn users (five to 20 hours per week), and 62 percent of college guys watch some Internet porn each week. In a 2007 study by researchers at Brigham Young University, 21 percent of all college students reported watching porn "every day or almost every day.

As adults, the problems may persist. At the 2003 American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers meeting, two-thirds of lawyers reported that compulsive Internet use played a significant role in divorces over that year, and 56 percent of those divorce cases included a partner who had an obsessive interest in pornographic websites. Eight years earlier, pornography had played almost no role in divorce.

And as a country, we watch a lot of porn -- 40 million people visit a porn site at least once a month (that's about one in eight Americans). And as an Internet populace, 25 percent of our search engine requests and an astounding 35 percent of our downloads are for porn.

While some studies that have surveyed the population at large conclude that Internet porn's not much of a problem, it's important to note that the percentage of Internet porn "addicts" is much higher in at-risk populations: young, Internet-connected men. (75 to 85 percent of Internet porn users are men).

25 percent of our search engine requests and an astounding 35 percent of our downloads are for porn.

And while Internet porn addiction hasn't been specifically surveyed, one study reports that Internet addiction more broadly is as high as 23 percent in some college-aged male populations, and pornography is considered to be the most addictive online stimulus.

I only watched a few hours of porn a week and haven't watched porn in years, but it continues to negatively affect my life -- so for some, the threshold isn't that high before Internet porn causes problems. Already it seems that there could be at least ten to twenty percent of college-aged guys suffering from Internet-porn related issues, and with more children watching at younger ages as high-speed Internet becomes more accessible, how big will this community be by the time my generation's kids are college-aged?

Fortunately, this community is already organizing itself.

Finding the Internet porn addiction community
Forums to discuss porn use and compulsive masturbation are cropping up around the web. These include Reddit's NoFap (where members support one other's abstinence from "fapping," or masturbating), Your Brain Rebalanced (where users publish porn-quitting journals), MedLine, and a slew of bodybuilding sites (mostly related to Erectile Dysfunction specifically), as well as some forums centered around a particularly ideology for quitting porn like Feed The Right Wolf.

More so than the startling statistics, the rapid growth of these digital communities felt to me like a concrete declaration that a lot of people are, at least self-reportedly, afflicted by porn: NoFap broke 60,000 subscribers last month.

Some of these groups are gathering interesting information about "porn addicts" and crowdsourcing solutions -- using the Internet collectively to fight what it did to each user alone. For example, Reddit's "fapstronaut" community conducted a self-survey in April 2012 with over 1,500 respondents, which details their demographics, masturbation habits, and self-reported effects of masturbation abstinence.

Below is a graph from the survey describing mutable sexual tastes, a feature that some researchers claim is characteristic of Internet porn addiction:

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Of course, folks are organizing in large part to figure out what has improved the lives of those who suffer from this little-recognized ailment. Towards this end, Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson, the founders of Your Brain on Porn, have stepped in to play the roles of informer and curator.

Based on their analysis of addiction research, Wilson and Robinson suggest the experiment: no pixelated sexual stimuli for as long as it takes to "reboot." The term loosely signifies a return to a "normal" sexual functioning and libido through a weakening of neural pathways that have associated arousal with porn-based stimuli. From a neuroplasticity framework, they hypothesize that neurons that stop firing together, stop wiring together -- that we can change our brains to be sensitized or desensitized to Internet porn.

The pair publishes user experiences with the "reboot" process, which they report usually takes about two to six months. On the site, most young guys with erectile dysfunction report a quicker recovery if they give up masturbation and orgasm temporarily too, so users typically label the experiment "no PMO" (porn, masturbation, orgasm).

Your Brain on Porn compliments this suggestion with a forum of what to expect when you abstain from PMO -- based on accounts from several online communities -- like a temporary loss of libido until a "flatline," and an extended recovery time if you're younger, especially if you first masturbated using Internet porn. The tome of grateful comments on Your Brain on Porn suggests that this guidance has prevented many readers from relapsing despite discouraging symptoms.

Over 75 percent of therapists felt unprepared to effectively treat clients who disclosed pornography use.

For me, the information was explosive. I'm not the only one out there who has stopped using porn and still hasn't recovered. My condition is especially persistent because I started my sexual life with porn. And I should keep sticking it out.

Furthermore, I finally had resources to investigate my "failed" attempt at rebooting. In high school, when I felt like my porn desires were morphing in ways I didn't particularly like, I took a five-month hiatus from masturbating. But, many nights before I feel asleep, I would imagine these porn-inspired fantasies as a sort of reward to myself. When I resumed solo sex, it was easier to avoid porn, but my fantasies were still exclusively deviant with apparent roots in porn I'd watched.

I posted this on Your Brain Rebalanced, and someone pointed out the obvious to me: neurons the fire together, wire together, and if I was still indulging those fantasies, I was still keeping those reward pathways strong. Gary Wilson of Your Brain on Porn goes further, telling readers to avoid literary or audio erotica and to not even surf through dating sites or hook-up apps like Grindr or Tinder, because the delivery system of clicking through image after image in search of novelty can itself be addicting.

Although very helpful, these informal surveys and anecdotes were not substitutes for medical advice. So I turned to the psychiatric community to see if they had anything to say. Did they even know this was a problem?

Professional opinions on treating porn addiction
Unfortunately, it seems that the scattered opinions on the diagnosis of porn addiction in the scientific community has left clinicians ill-equipped to treat patients.

A survey of therapists in 2009 showed that over 75 percent felt unprepared to effectively treat clients who disclosed pornography use, while 50 percent failed to identify quitting porn as a major goal of treatment, and 20 percent normalized or did not address the porn use at all.

Despite an influx of patients seeking help with porn-related behavior, many marriage and family therapists have trivialized the effects of "cybersex addiction," allowing their personal views of porn to unduly influence their patient assessments. Although there are specialized support groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous and even specially trained sex addiction therapists, in many cases, people who have sought help from professionals have had discouraging encounters.

Fortunately, some therapists saw this coming and tried to prepare their colleagues.

In the mid-1990s internationally recognized sex therapist Wendy Maltz and her husband Larry Maltz, who is a licensed clinical social worker, noticed an increase in the number of clients approaching them with porn-related problems; porn was no longer acting as a supplement for sexual intimacy but as a competing force. They contacted other therapists and found confirmation of this trend, so they began soliciting patients with porn-related concerns to interview.

My encounters with real women were stained with dejection, which made it even easier to turn to those sites that were sanitized of real life's complications.

In 2008, they published the authoritative book, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography . Largely sidestepping the diagnostic imbroglio, the Maltz's spend the first half of the book describing how people fall into the "porn trap," including jarring stories of divorce, arrest, and disgrace. They dedicate the rest of the book to healing, which begins with telling someone else about your porn problem, and moves to enrolling in a treatment program, creating a "porn-free environment" to prevent relapse, establishing accountability, and finally "healing your sexuality."

Since then, some clinicians have taken a more rehabilitative approach and have even crafted new diagnostic models. Tal Croitoru, MSW/MBA, places "porn addiction" in the same category as PTSD and has been pioneering EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) with her patients -- undoing "porn trauma" by watching the traumatizing videos and reprocessing them -- and she has reported positive results. Others promote an extinction training or cognitive behavior therapy approach (even through an online program) to stop the mental "reruns" of pornography and ultimately replace those images with more appropriate ones.

Still, for some of us, porn's most significant disruption is the wedge it creates between us and our intimate partners. In recognition of this, some psychotherapists have provided narratives of successful couples-based approaches to treatment.

In her book The Men on My Couch, Dr. Brandy Engler describes how Casey suffered a "fractured sexual identity" in his relationship with his girlfriend Amy because his porn-inspired fantasies felt like a betrayal to her -- so he hid them. Dr. Engler helped the pair untangle their abstracted associations of love with sexual fantasy, allowing Casey to shed his shame and Amy to explore eroticism.

Some critics of the porn addiction model frame behavioral addiction treatment and psychotherapy as being at odds with one another. Robert Weiss, LCSW, an international sex addiction expert and the founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, strongly disagrees.

Weiss explained to me that traditional addiction treatments like cognitive behavior therapy with social group-based support and accountability have clearly proven effective for curbing undesirable behavior. Which he thinks is a necessary first step. "Many of my patients don't have the ability to look at childhood problems. Addiction treatment gets people ready for psychotherapy." Perhaps more distressing, Weiss has seen patients who had been in psychotherapy only, without any behavioral intervention, who had gotten fired or divorced during therapy because they hadn't reined in their destructive porn habits.

Learning all this was making me feel less self-conscious with my own significant other about my predilection for kink and occasional issues with delayed ejaculation. She should be my partner in overcoming my shame, not the judge and jury.

Talking about porn
As this gets more attention, hopefully researchers will study all kinds of treatments. But for now, the one thing that everyone agrees on -- from Reddit's fapstronauts to sex therapists -- is that talking about it helps.

On an episode of Gary Wilson's "Your Brain in the Cybersex Jungle" radio show, Wendy Maltz discussed the importance of breaking the silence on porn addiction:

The main thing is overcoming shame and coming out of isolation. Find someone to talk to -- it could be a therapist, it could be a friend, it could be a relative, it could be a spouse or a partner. If that feels like too scary a step, back up a bit and just educate yourself about today's pornography. It's really different than the Playboy magazines of the past. Education reduces the shame. You realize you're not alone and that this is a new phenomenon.

Although learning about porn addiction and finding a community to talk about it with has been liberating for some, the shame -- that goes to the heart of commonly held notions of gender roles and sexuality -- has kept many quiet. This was one response I got from a reader who watched porn like S&M, Diaper, and Furry:

As a man, talking about this issue to my closest friend only came after I took MDMA and I still couldn't mention the kinkiest of the fantasies, only S&M. It completely goes against a man's worth and expectations with women. It can be crippling at times. Because I did not know what was going on I could not communicate about it with my girlfriend and it drove us apart.

As I received more responses like this to my first piece on porn addiction, and as I started sharing my own story openly with friends, family (yep, I told my parents), and current partner, I started to understand how integral not talking about it -- the isolation -- was to the addictive experience of my Internet porn use.

Coming out to my significant other
"I can't believe you find that attractive."

As part of the process of opening up to my partner about porn, we decided to watch porn together. She had never watched porn before, and after the first video, she flatly ruled that it was repulsive to her. Particularly the cumshot scenes.

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When I told her that those scenes used to be a major turn-on for me, that I would fast-forward to those scenes to climax, she just couldn't understand it.

I watched myself get mad. I was confused about where the hurt and anger came from, but I knew where they were targeted -- at her. At women like her. I grew so angry I couldn't speak.

We watched a scene of a pig-tailed girl having sex with her older neighbor and the juvenile logic streamed in my head along with the video: She wouldn't say porn is disgusting. She wouldn't argue with me. She wouldn't say no. I was a pissed off teenager again, smoldering.

The height of my porn watching was my adolescence -- high school -- when each relationship felt like a splintering slat on a long rickety bridge. Porn didn't just serve as an outlet for my sexual frustration; it was a steadying beam to fall back on.

So when my partner gave a hint of rejection, my emotional complexion flushed with hostility, anxiety, and lust. I reverted. To the time when this or that girl: snuck out on a school night to smoke with me but just wanted to remain friends; dated me for almost a year but was never ready to take her shirt off; couldn't stop kissing me when she was drunk but wouldn't start when she was sober.

I had always felt guilty about watching porn and I had needed things to blame. Why not the women who "forced" me to go there?

My partner closed the browser and we had the worst sex we've ever had. She said it was the first time I'd ever "fucked her."

I realized then that the Maltz's "trap" metaphor was apt for me. As a 12-year-old and Internet neophyte, I had fallen into a positive feedback loop.

Porn sites had promoted my pornographic behavior and attitudes over and over again, and I had rapidly descended into darker, dirtier porn, which was all the more gripping because it was so taboo. At the same time, these behaviors were increasingly reviled and denounced by society, so I felt progressively unable to utter my tastes aloud, driving me to depend more and more on porn for sexual acceptance.

I looked at a soft-core Maxim magazine and I could still talk about it with my dad. I watch hard-core POV porn and I could still share it on a CD with close friends. I watched superhero cartoon porn and I'd rather just go to my computer. And once I was only with my computer, why stop there?

The computer didn't judge, just provided, and accepted: pimp, whore, mother.

Of course, my encounters with real women were stained with dejection, which made it even easier to turn to those sites that were sanitized of real life's complications. I didn't even have to think -- it just worked. Like a pill.

These intersecting forces pushed me further into isolation. This is why -- at least for me, and some others who have described it on forums around the web -- talking about porn has been so freeing.

If I tell others, then the computer isn't the only place I can go to feel sexually honest. And if others accept me, then I don't feel so ashamed. And if those desires aren't so shameful, then they lose the black lust of taboo, and I lose my feverish fixation on them. And then I don't feel like they're all I want -- need -- and I can explore sex a bit more freely.

What's more, memories associated with strong emotions like embarrassment are encoded most deeply; so killing the shame can render these dark secrets into just some videos I watched as a kid. Which is whole lot easier to let go of.

Perhaps it's unrealistic for sexuality to be viewed as a public, community-supported, and interactive attribute like playing sports or making art, but I wonder what the cost is of the privacy around it -- especially in the age of Internet porn.

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Isaac Abel is the pen name of a journalist, based in Brooklyn, who writes about sexuality and gender. His tumblr is here.

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